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Everything changes. Except for what doesn’t…

For the better part of the past decade, my two old friends and I have met up in India every January to explore a different part of an endless country. That all stopped with the pandemic three years ago. To our surprise, we’ve all made it through so far, so as always we had to push our luck and schedule our usual January trip.

As we were planning this year’s trip, I wondered what changes we would find in India, both over the three Covid years of our absence, and over the past decade of our India travels.

All honking, all the time…

To the absolute and utter amazement of just about everyone who knows us, the three of us arrived at the Chennai airport from the US, the UK, and Gujarat at approximately the same time. We piled into our pre-booked taxi and as I listened to the cacophony of honking — in India, vehicle horns are a form of radar sounded at all times to let other drivers know of your presence on the road — I thought nothing had changed.

I was completely wrong. And totally right. The India I first experienced all those years ago was the old India. Roadsides were public urinals, cows wandered freely along streets and highways, and litter was everywhere. The friendly people we met went out of their way to help us, the food was fabulous, and ancient marvels waiting around every corner amazed us. (Sure the US has some Viking graves, cave paintings, and native peoples whose traditions extend for centuries earlier. But for the most part, we Americans rarely encounter anything older than a century.)

At an ancient temple site I overheard a father telling his child, “It’s more than a thousand years old.” The child was skeptical. “Is that more than nineteen?” [All images unless otherwise credited: ©Janine Smith & Jayalakshmy Ayyer]

But in my annual trips over the past decade, the India I’ve visited has been flinging itself into the future of technical innovation. It has also been working to preserve a history that includes some of the world’s oldest known civilizations.

I began to catalog the changes.

  1. Taxi anyone?

On past trips, we got all our directions via queries shouted by our driver to passersby. Now, GPS is our guide and Google is our guru. In previous years, we loved experimenting with a variety of auto-rickshaws, taxis, private drivers, etc. But in the two years BC (Before Covid), an Uber-type app swept across India. It sends your Ola driver almost instantly, and you could travel in air-conditioned style, complete with touch screens offering maps, news, entertainment, etc. And this year, our auto rickshaw driver held out his cellphone with a QR code, Jaya aimed her phone at it, and the fare was paid. When he saw me staring, the driver smiled and said, “Digital India.”

2. When you gotta go…

On earlier trips, significant time was allotted to the never-ending search for western toilets, and that even rarer Holy Grail: toilet paper. (Much, MUCH clandestine paper napkin liberation occurred at each of our restaurant stops.) But now almost every regular restaurant boasts facilities and even TP.

And there were also things I expected to see but didn’t. Not only were there no cows on the freeway, but we didn’t see the usual lineup of men casually using the roadside as toilets, while the piles of plastic rubbish we’d come to expect along the roads had virtually disappeared as well.

Toilet door signs of the new India: Jaya explained how Indian government initiatives had built over thirty million toilets over the past few years, while others discouraged plastic use. (There are steep fines in some cities like Mumbai for even carrying a single-use plastic bag!)

3. The changes go even deeper.

Clean-up volunteers at India Gate, Delhi. A combination of financial and social incentives for a Clean India are changing the face of the country.

Another game-changer is the road system itself. Thanks to an epic road building program, there are freeways connecting most places.

And the many toll-gates—which had involved traffic snarls so permanent that little enterprise zones of beggars and vendors surrounded them—now consist of automatic gates that recognize the vehicles’ FasTag.

 

Roadside offerings regularly include Starbucks, Subway, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Baskin Robbins, and even McDonalds.

Health coverage and other benefits are tied to each person’s bank account (no minimum balance required, so everyone has one), with biometric thumbprint verification making ID cards unnecessary. Since almost everyone in India has a mobile phone, the joke is that beggars will soon accept charity via their QR code.

Of course, all of this digital economy means nobody wants to take actual cash from us foreigners without an Indian GooglePay account. We’ve had to take change in the form of small packages of candy and cookies (which almost never migrate to the bottom of your purse and get lost).

My favorite change?

Actually, this is the “After” shot—almost fully cured, although the lady who applied my mehndi (henna decorations) had to swirl around the little hole. (The “Before” shot was so potentially NSFW that nobody needs to see that. Bad enough that it was on my middle finger!)

India has been building a world-class medical system, which has fed a growing medical tourism industry. A few months before our trip, some rogue blood vessels on my middle finger decided to party, and their shenanigans produced a growth that looked a lot like a misplaced penis. While this could have led to all kinds of interesting personal developments, I really wasn’t up for seeing it waving as I tried to type. My doctor said it could be months before the NHS could remove it, so my choices boiled down to seeing a private doctor and paying a shedload of money for removal of my embarrassing mini-member, or going to a doctor while in India.

Jaya activated the Indian Mother Network, and found a relative: her husband’s cousin’s mother-in-law’s niece is what I think she said, but actually I lost track. With that close family tie, Jaya was told to just bring me in, no appointment needed. Doctor Shobana S, a well-known dermatologist dressed in a beautiful sari, greeted me serenely from behind her desk. A few minutes later, my unwanted mini-appendage was history. Cost for the procedure, including her consultation fee and prescriptions was less than dinner and a movie back home. For the rest of our trip, this became our new monetary unit. (As in, “How many fingers is that statue?” Or “That guide wanted half a finger, but Jaya bargained down to just a third.”)

My first stop as a medical tourist? The Radiant Skin Clinic—next door to a lovely small temple, across the street from a vegetable stand, and watched over by a serene goddess. Leave your shoes by the door, and in fifteen minutes Dr. Shobana will have you on your way to a great vacation.

Another thing that has changed in the past few years is the intensity of demand for pictures with foreigners. The polite and even shy requests for photos we encountered our first trip years ago have grown into insistence that borders on stalking.

At popular sites, we can barely get through the throngs taking their own pictures, almost always blocking out and frequently facing away from the treasures displayed. The poor guards’ whistles sound nonstop as they attempt to keep selfie-takers from hanging off or climbing the sculptures for a better view of themselves. But apparently the only thing that could distract them is the one missing piece for their digitized composition: women in western dress. “Selfie Madam?” is the incessant refrain following us across India.

“Selfie, Madam?” We’ve gotten used to this plea and have developed a rule: we only pose with children. But…there are a LOT of adorable children in India…

Of course, some things haven’t changed yet. In cities, beggars still knock on your car window and hold up their children. If you work up the nerve to cross a street in any major city, you still have to look in ALL the directions, watch out for cows, goats, and the occasional elephant, and be careful where you step. And unless you want to experience India’s world-class medical expertise up close and personal, you still shouldn’t drink the water.

The Biggest Change?

All in all, the biggest difference we saw was in ourselves. Our most common refrain was, “Has anyone seen my …?” “Thingie” became an all-purpose noun. The ever-kind Indians we met seemed even more solicitous. The stairs seemed higher, both the sun and the food a bit hotter, and our energy ran out long before either our day or our money did.

Has India changed?

If you want to see an India full of stunning historical and artistic treasures, you’re in luck. You’ll find toilets along the way, on-demand drivers to get you there, and familiar American fast food choices that can’t begin to compare with the delicious foods of India. You can get a world-class medical procedure at bargain prices, amazing food, and all the photos with total strangers you ever/never wanted. And most of all, you’ll get to spend time in a country full of the 1.4 billion nicest people you’ll ever meet. And that one mean one who got us kicked out of the temple that time…

Changing India? Well, a little girl from a small rural South Indian town can grow up, go to the States to attend the University of Chicago, and share a flat with two friends. Half a century later, they can all meet up in India every year, to travel, search for toilets, explore antiquities, eat parathas, and watch the future unfold. Only now they can pay for it all using their phones. If they can just remember where they put them…


How about you? What post-Covid changes have you seen?